Tear Down that Fence: Tips to Green Your Yard With Sustainable Materials

When building your garden paradise, try a more thoughtful version of the "reduce, reuse, and recycle" motto.

Editor's note: Want a climate-friendly home? Your yard is a good place to start. This is the second in a five-part series of guides on how to manage your outdoor turf to reduce your carbon footprint, all while creating bird-friendly habitat. Read parts onethreefour, and five.

Two years ago, at a summer family barbecue, my cousin plopped down on one of our ancient Adirondack chairs and went crashing through. The furniture came with our house, and, for 20 years, we’d been making regular repairs and painting annually to stem the rot. It was time to consider other options.

You’d think it would be easy to find a simple list of low-carbon landscape and backyard materials. On the contrary, choosing products, whether planters, decking, or wicker sectionals, is enough to make your head spin. Faced with an array of new chair choices—one made from virgin materials, one with recycled content, another made locally—how do you determine which is best?

“It’s surprising how little information there still is,” says Melissa Bilec, deputy director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh. Ideally, she says, society will one day move beyond the current “make, use, and dispose” linear model of consumption to a “circular economy” that avoids waste and pollution by recovering and restoring materials in a continuous closed loop.

For now, though, it’s necessary to muddle through with some common sense. Try following a more nuanced version of the traditional three “Rs”—Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Use Living Materials

As Kim Sorvig points out in his useful tome Sustainable Landscape Construction, using plant materials in your garden whenever possible provides a long list of side benefits, such as cooling shade and carbon sequestration. For example, instead of the wooden or, worse, plastic fences that have multiplied along property lines across the country, why not opt for a wildlife hedge? A spectacular mix of native flowering and evergreen trees and shrubs left to follow their own growth habits can provide not only privacy but also much-needed food, nesting, and resting places for birds and other creatures.

Whittle Down Your Wish List 

There’s a good reason why “reduce” is the first of the three "Rs." The greenhouse gas emissions involved in the so-called life cycle of any product can pile up, from the extraction of raw materials to its manufacture, transport and, ultimately, disposal. It’s a good idea to ask yourself if you absolutely need that fully-outfitted outdoor kitchen, and pare down the plans where possible.

Reuse, Repurpose 

It’s also worth seeing whether you or a neighbor have a pile of old pavers lying around that could become a new patio. Reusing existing and salvaged materials is not only more climate-friendly than purchasing virgin resources, but often less expensive, too.

Steer Clear of Concrete

The amount of “embodied energy” in virgin concrete is so enormous that avoiding it should be a basic rule of thumb. During manufacture, its major component, cement, must be heated in a kiln at more than 2,500 degress Fahrenheit. Concrete is so energy-intensive to produce that it accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

Look for Local Materials 

Because the fossil fuels burned during transportation can significantly increase a product’s carbon footprint, seek out materials that are harvested, extracted, or manufactured close to home. Is there a carpenter in your community who can purchase locally-harvested wood to build your new deck? Does a nearby supplier sell locally-quarried stone or gravel for garden paths?

Consider Certified Products 

It’s also worth checking out products that have been certified by an independent organization that has determined they meet a set of environmentally-rigorous standards. One of the best known is the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit established in 1993 to promote sustainable management of the world’s forests. Wood bearing the FSC logo is certified for having a comparatively small impact on the environment, including on the atmosphere. Bilec recommends consulting the Green Building Alliance’s list of certification and labeling systems.

Explore Recycled Options

There’s also a good reason “recycle” is the last of the three Rs. Recycled materials aren’t thrown away, but they are re-manufactured between uses. This, along with collection and transport of the materials, may more than cancel out any net-energy savings. On the other hand, purchasing products with recycled content can boost the recycling industry, getting us closer to the ideal circular economy.

So what did we decide to do with our rickety Adirondack chairs? There was no source of local, sustainably-harvested wood for replacements, and in any case the corrosive salty air and humidity in our coastal environment would necessitate regular applications of preservative or paint to resist rot, which have their own climate impacts. We therefore opted for chairs made from 100 percent high-density polyethylene (HDPE), primarily from milk jugs and other post-consumer plastic products. What would you have done?